Tackling transport-related social exclusion and delivering a just transition to a decarbonised future


When inclusion and environment clashKieran Seale headshot

Ensuring fair access to transport and tackling climate change often go hand in hand.

Walking is free; cycling inexpensive (spending thousands of pounds on designer lycra is, I believe, voluntary). 

Public transport often costs more than it should, but schemes like the £2 bus fare cap show there are potential solutions to that problem. 

The railways are a little more complex.  While there are clearly environmental benefits from using them (especially where the alternative is flying), rail use is generally skewed towards well-off people.

Generally though, promoting environmentally friendly transport promotes social equity.

When you get to the private car, however, things start to get complicated.  The helpful correlation between low cost and low emissions breaks down.  Having an expensive Tesla really is better for the environment than an old diesel.

This dislocation lies at the heart of the political controversy that has swirled around transport policy in recent weeks.  Inclusion and environmental policies really do seem to clash. 

Famously, the Uxbridge by-election turned on the Mayor of London’s plans to extend an Ultra Low-Emission Zone (ULEZ).  More importantly, the issue was subsequently picked up by the Prime Minister, who said ULEZ is going to “hit working families” and the Leader of the Opposition who asked the mayor to “reflect” on the scheme.

Now I agree with the many people who have argued that reshaping transport policy on the basis of the votes of a few hundred people in a small town in Hillingdon doesn’t make much sense.  At the same time, politicians pick up on things because people care about them.  We shouldn’t be in any doubt that there are people who strongly oppose some environmental schemes, and that they include people whom the scheme has a big negative impact on.

There is a similar problem with implementing congestion charging.  While it is clear that the benefits on average greatly outweigh the costs, there will always be individuals who are badly hit.  The nurse driving home in the morning peak from a night shift, for example.

The benefits of ULEZ from an equity perspective are clear.  Less well off people live in areas with worse air quality.  Car ownership is generally correlated with income - the poorest people in London don’t own cars.    

Nevertheless, some people on low incomes are hit.  The Mayor has introduced a scrappage scheme aiming to help with that.  It was initially limited to residents of London who are recipients of income support, disability benefit and child benefit who can get up to £2,000 for scrapping a car and £1,000 for a motorcycle (although it has now been extended to all London residents). How well that deals with all the equity problems is unclear - it certainly doesn't help people who live just outside London. 

Balancing a small number of people who are badly affected with a much larger group of people who gain a little, is a feature of many environmental schemes.  And that is important politically - people are much more likely to complain if they lose out than express support  because they gain.

Economists talk about the winners from schemes being able to compensate the losers.  Actually delivering that compensation is not an easy task in practice - and will be one of the key public policy challenges in the next few years.  Further low emission schemes, carbon taxes and congestion charges will be needed to get to a decarbonised world.  We need to make sure that those who design them understand the differential effects on particular individuals.  Most importantly, those designing schemes need to be given the power and flexibility to make them truly fair. 

Kieran Seale

5th September 2023

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